"Don't Mention It" Episode 1: FGM/C Is Not A Faraway Problem: A Conversation with Maryum Saifee

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Show Notes


End FGM/C U.S. Network

Maryum’s Articles

I’m a survivor of female genital cutting and I’m speaking out – as others must too.

Female Genital Mutilation and the Detroit Ruling: A Survivor’s Perspective


Elizabeth - 00:07              

Hey everybody, welcome to "Don't Mention It," an inclusive series from Underestimated sharing stories that too often go unmentioned in relation to health throughout the spectrum of femininity. For the next three episodes, I will be speaking with women who are activists in the movement to end the practice of female genital mutilation. Some are survivors of the practice themselves and it is only through their courage and activism and the courage of other survivors and activists speaking out when it is incredibly hard to do so that we are able to begin the work of eradicating the practice of FGM, not only in the United States but worldwide. This week, on February 6th, the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, a new website was launched. It is the end FGM/C U.S. Network and the women I will be speaking within this series. Maryum Saifee, Mariya Taher, and Shelby Quast are all members of the team that has come together to form this network. Their mission statement reads, quote, "Our mission is to eliminate FGM/C by connecting, supporting, elevating, and advocating on behalf of and with diverse U.S. stakeholders engaged in prevention, education and care."


There are a couple of things I want to mention before we get into the episode. And the first is that female genital mutilation is obviously a delicate and difficult topic to talk about and to hear about and to process and deal with.


I have been honored to speak with these women and to learn more about their experiences and the work that they're doing to eradicate this practice. I'm hoping that this series will do something to help their work to end FGM/C and to create a better understanding of the obstacles towards eradicating the practice both here in the United States and around the globe. I hope that this series helps provide more context and information for people who don't know how to approach this topic but who want to help. The other thing is, throughout the series there are a couple of terms you will hear that I want to elaborate on before we get started. Female genital mutilation or FGM is sometimes referred to also as FGC or female genital cutting. And sometimes you'll see the acronym FGM/C, which refers to female genital mutilation or circumcision. The terms are important because they are the language we use to discuss the practice, but they have different meanings in different cases. First, FGM is not just one thing. According to the World Health Organization, there are four defined types of excision that constitute female genital mutilation.


I will go into details of what these are later in the episode. Some of the survivors I've spoken with prefer to use the term FGM or female genital mutilation and some prefer to use FGC or female genital cutting. You may notice that depending on who I'm speaking with, I use the terminology they prefer to use themselves. In regard to the term female circumcision being used. The sense that I get from this is that the term circumcision is used in reference to FGM in some cases because the practice of male circumcision is more widely accepted in society and that by using the term circumcision, it doesn't make it sound as traumatic as it is as when you say female genital mutilation. To be clear, female genital mutilation is not the same as male circumcision. Though there is now also a movement of people who are working to end male circumcision as well.


Female genital mutilation or cutting is a form of gender based violence and sexual assault and while we explore some of the justifications used for defending this practice as the series unfolds because it is important to understand why this practice persists so that we can work to end it, it is critical to emphatically say that this is gender based violence and sexual assault. It is a symptom of a patriarchy that attempts to rob women and girls of their bodily autonomy and sexual agency as they mature and has lifelong consequences both mentally and physically. The United Nations Population Fund defines female genital mutilation as, "All procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural or other non-medical reasons." In November of 2018, a U.S. District judge in Detroit ruled that the federal ban on female genital mutilation in the United States was unconstitutional.


The ruling in the Detroit case put FGM in the United States in the headlines, but FGM happening in the United States is nothing new. To the communities where this is practiced, to the activists who've been working to end FGM for decades now, and especially to the survivors of FGM, the fact that this is happening in the United States was not revelatory knowledge. But to many people, myself included, it was a shock to learn that there weren't necessarily just isolated cases in the U.S., and that FGM presents a very real risk and real trauma to many, many women and girls living in the United States. For survivors and activists who've been fighting to end the practice, if there was a silver lining to the Detroit ruling, it was that it opened the door for conversation and raising awareness, because as you will hear repeated throughout the three episodes in this series devoted to discussing FGM, female genital mutilation is not a far away problem.


The overwhelming impression among those who don't know the reality is that FGM is something only practiced in other countries and not here. The truth is that this is a global issue and the case in Detroit brought the fact that FGM was happening here in the United States to the fore. However, the discussion is a difficult one to navigate for a number of reasons and it's also important to mention that a lot of people just assume that this is a Muslim issue, that this is something that only happens in Muslim communities, and as you'll hear in these episodes, that is not the case. The truth is that this is a global issue and the case in Detroit brought the fact that FGM was happening here in the U.S. To the fore. The discussion is a difficult one to navigate for a number of reasons and those reasons will be discussed later in the episode and throughout the series.


The case in Detroit surrounded nine minor girls from Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois, and was the first case of its kind in U.S. History. It was significant for several reasons. The first reason is that this was the first time that a case was ever brought in a court that argued defendants were violating the Female Genital Mutilation Act, which was a federal law that was passed in 1996. The judge in Detroit ruled on a technicality in 2018. In an excerpt from an article in the Detroit Free Press, District Judge Bernard Friedman is quoted as saying, "As laudable as the prohibition of a particular type of abuse on girls may be, federalism concerns deprived congress have the power to enact the statute," Friedman wrote this as part of a 28 page opinion, noting again, "Congress overstepped its bounds by legislating to prohibit FGM...FGM is a 'local criminal activity,' which in keeping with longstanding tradition in our federal system of government is for the states to regulate, not Congress."


What this means is that he has decided to deem the Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1996 unconstitutional as being in violation of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. That language that he referenced, categorizing FGM as a "local criminal activity," in his opinion in this case removes the ban of FGM as it was passed in 1996 from federal jurisdiction and essentially makes it a state and local issue. Currently, only 28 states have laws banning FGM. This does include Michigan where the case was tried, but Michigan's law did not apply in this case because the charges were brought under the federal law and as such, this case cannot be retried retroactively under the now extant state law, which was passed in 2017. To quote again from the Detroit Free Press, "U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman concluded that, "As despicable as this practice may be,' Congress did not have the authority to pass the 22 year old federal law that criminalizes female genital mutilation and that FGM is for the states to regulate. FGM has been banned worldwide and has been outlawed in more than 30 countries. Though the U.S. statute had never been tested before this case."


It's not clear to me why the judge chose to rule in this way, as some might argue that judicial discretion exists for cases like this. Regardless, the judge's ruling in November of 2018 resulted in the dismissal of some critical charges against two Detroit area doctors and six other co-defendants. This case, which is in the process of being appealed, brought female genital mutilation to the public sphere in the United States in a way that had not happened before, and that is the second major impact of this case on a wider scale. Many people, myself included, had no idea that FGM/C was practiced in the U.S. outside of some isolated cases. Data provided by Equality Now, an organization that has been working to end violence against women and girls since 1992 provides more insight into the scope of the issue.


"In January 2016, in response to advocacy by Equality Now, Safe Hands For Girls, and other civil society partners, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, published a study on the number of women and girls in the U..S who are at risk or have been subjected to FGM. According to this study, the number is estimated to be at 513,000."


Every survivor has their own story, with no one experience being the same as another. My guest today is Maryum Saifee. Maryum is actively involved in global efforts to end female genital mutilation. She has an FGM survivor herself and first published her story in the Guardian two years ago to help break the culture of silence on the issue. She is a badass and spoke to me, someone who knew next to nothing about FGM reaching out for an interview with someone willing to talk to me about it, as she traveled throughout the country. And she spoke to me about this deeply personal and deeply complex issue with such openness and candor that I left our discussions feeling humbled, inspired, and in awe of her.


Here's her official bio, "Maryum Saifee is currently a council on foreign relations international affairs fellow based at the Human Rights Foundation. The opinions expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of her organizational affiliations." Maryum and I were connected because after the recent verdict in Detroit in November, I had shared the story on social media and was contacted by a listener to this podcast who asked if I could do an episode on FGM. They had someone in their lives who was using the recent verdict to justify anti-Muslim sentiment and they wanted more information. I had replied that it was monumentally unfair to characterize all Muslims by this practice and that from cursory research that I had done, FGM has also happened in communities that were not Muslim. And then I also mentioned that I didn't feel that I was at all qualified to talk about FGM, but that I would try to get in touch with people who were. I reached out for help and through that I was connected with Maryum. When we spoke on the phone ahead of scheduling this interview, we necessarily covered a lot of ground because talking about FGM, as I've mentioned, is difficult. This is not only because it is incredibly traumatic, but also because ending FGM is a multifaceted undertaking.


Maryum has recently published an article on Medium.com titled, "Female Genital Mutilation and the Detroit Ruling: A Survivor's Perspective," and she joins me today to share her story, to discuss the recent court ruling in Detroit, and to talk about what we can do to end FGM entirely.


Maryum Saifee, welcome to underestimated. Thank you for being here and for sharing your time and story with me today.

Maryum Saifee - 12:50              

Thanks for having me.

Elizabeth - 12:53              

So, to start, before the recent verdict regarding FGM in Detroit, FGM and particularly FGM being practiced in the United States has not been something that has been often, it seems kind of rarely ever been part of our national conversation surrounding gender based violence. However, as you wrote in an article published by the Guardian, "Like other forms of gender based violence, FGM is a manifestation of power and means of controlling the sexuality of women and girls." This is, this is true and yet it doesn't get discussed in the mainstream like other forms of gender based violence. Can you speak to some of the reasons why FGM is not often discussed publicly and why in your opinion, banning FGM is not something that is often mentioned even in feminist and activist circles when we discuss combating gender based violence?

Maryum Saifee - 13:49              

I mean, I think it's a good question. I think part of it is that FGM, the act itself is usually done in secret. It's not sort of talked about. So only within the last few years have you seen in the United States the public discourse because survivors of FGM, similar to the #MeToo movement where, you know, something that we, we may not have known. It was so pervasive is now sort of now out and, you know, largely driven by social media and storytelling and testimonies. So, so I think FGM is even harder in some ways because it's done in communities in secret. So in my community, for example, up until a few years ago, people were just weren't discussing it. So it would have been, and then, you know, no one would really discuss what happened after, after it took place. So now that, you know thanks to, you know, podcasts like yours and, and just media platforms and people speaking out, there's a lot more debate. And I think, with, you know, with the debate a lot of correcting and setting the record straight on, especially the harm that it causes.

Elizabeth - 14:57              

And in your recent article for medium that you wrote, you say, "Campaigning against FGM is an uphill battle," and a thing that kind of piggy backs a bit on, on what you were just talking about. Can you speak a bit to why it's an uphill battle, both in a broader context and specifically as it relates to the Muslim community and what the challenges are?

Maryum Saifee - 15:22              

Yeah, it's, I think it's an uphill battle in the sense like the, you know, the issue itself, you know, female genital mutilation, it's sort of a squeamish topic. It's not a thing that many people want really even discuss. It's uncomfortable, even in communities that don't practice, they still sort of, it's, it's in and of itself just kind of in and of itself a hard topic to bring up, in, in any kind of public sort of way. So that's one area that that makes it kind of particularly challenging. And the other is that, you know, because the issue is framed, I say incorrectly framed as, you know, this exotic, far away problem, and is, there are many that have that, that have, that kind of associate FGM as specifically like only a Muslim issue, which isn't true because we know it happens across different communities. Christian, I think that the majority of people who practice in Nigeria, happen to be Christian, you have a woman, it happens across race, so there's a, an American, a white American woman from Minnesota, Renee Bergstrom, from a conservative Christian community that had it done to her. So it's very much, as I had said earlier or that you had quoted, it's, you know, gender based violence is pretty much pervasive everywhere. So this is, but because it's framed often as a Muslim issue, it's sometimes used by some groups that are kind of fueling anti-Muslim sentiment to, to showcase, oh, this, the religion is somehow rooted in misogyny, or, or in patriarchy. And so that's one area that makes it challenging because you don't want your story or you don't want the issue itself to become fodder for folks that don't have the community's best interests at heart. But on the flip side of that, you have members of the community, and again, not all Muslims practice FGM, but there are some religious leaders who misinterpret texts, in ways that are patriarchal, like any other religion. And so they'll use the fear of, you know, stoking, Islamophobia as a means of silencing activists like me and others who are saying, listen, we need to also address the issue that you know, some religious leaders are peddling this, you know, you know, misinterpretation as a way to control female sexuality. So, so you're sort of caught between not wanting to provide fodder for these anti-Muslim groups, but at the same time, you know, you're silenced within your own community for sort of being, you know, seen as like, a pawn for those groups. So it makes it very challenging because you're kind of attacked. And then of course, the community that is in my community, for example, or no longer really a part of it, but a community, my parents, you know, my family was sort of brought up in the Bohra community. They will also pressure you as well. So the pro FGM elements within, will try to silence you or try to pressure in some ways. So there's sort of multiple, you're in like a pressure cooker, like a pressure cooker in many ways, when you're doing the work.

Elizabeth - 18:32              

And to that point, so one of the aspects of the discussion as you're, as you were saying just now, on FGM, is that bigoted people use FGM to try and justify anti-Muslim sentiment. Of course maligning an entire diverse group of people by a minority of people who practice FGM is not only unfair, but not supported by facts as you've been saying.

Maryum Saifee - 18:58              

Exactly, exactly.

Elizabeth - 18:58              

Yeah. And so, because I think, I think you're right. I think a lot of people, if they don't know anything about it, and they're, and they're are already bigoted in their beliefs, they may think, oh, well all Muslims do this, which is not the case then, uh, by far.

Maryum Saifee - 19:21              

Oh no, you're exactly right. FGM happens across, you know, different religions, geographies, race, socioeconomic class. But I'd have to say the majority of those communities that are practicing, do tend to come from Muslim majority countries and leave most sort of, some, there are some Muslim leaders, leaders that have misinterpreted texts. There's no mention of FGM in the Qur'an. There's some weak Hadiths, or prophetic tradition that mainstream scholars have discredited, but there are some religious leaders within the Muslim community that do use it. So, so it is sort of important and the one hand to say, of course it's not a Muslim issue in terms of the texts and in terms of the mainstream, but the reason the one of the main drivers in the, propagation, at least within Muslim context tends to be interpretations of this Faith that are, that are incorrect. So my, my push is also for more Muslim leaders to speak out, especially in the mainstream that are, that say, hey, this has nothing to do with our religion because that has a lot of power and a lot of weight, and influencing those that are feeling like they're obligated to do it, to say, oh, actually let me revisit this, this isn't really part of the Faith.

Elizabeth - 20:37              

Right. And, and, and to that point, you, you also wrote in your article, and I think you've just alluded to, not alluded, I think you just mentioned this too, but that part of the, part of what makes it harder to have the conversation within the Muslim community is because of the fear of stoking up more Islamophobia.

Maryum Saifee - 20:56              


Elizabeth - 20:57              

So, you have a wonderful quote about this in your article, "When I have spoken up to engage religious leaders, lawyers, academics, public health practitioners, and even elected representatives within the Muslim community, my requests have often been met with quiet support, but a reluctance to publicly address the issue for fear of fueling Islamophobia."

Maryum Saifee - 21:19              

That's exactly right. Yeah. That, yeah, that, that's the tension. So a lot of, there's a lot of, so most Muslims that I, when I, when I talk to aside from the, the minority elements within some communities that promote FGM, the vast majority, at least in the United States, are very much against FGM. So there is there's, but they're, they're not willing to kind of come out publicly and say anything because they're afraid this will turn into the issue itself. It becomes politicized in a way that the turns against them. So, so that's one of the areas that is incredibly challenging. It's getting, you know, for example, I think I mentioned that, you know, two representatives that were recently elected, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib if you know, to, for breaking many ceilings. But one of the ceilings is the fact that they're both, the first two Muslim women members of Congress, having those representatives, it's amazing. And the Detroit case actually touches in both of their states because it was an interstate - girls from Michigan or sorry, girls from Minnesota were transported to Michigan. So the two, you know, you're sort of waiting for them to weigh in. And neither of them, I mean, they both supported anti-FGM legislation in their states. So they're definitely on the right side of the issue and clearly against FGM, but they haven't publicly spoken out. And I, and my, I mean, I don't know why and I can't get into their, you know, into their reasoning, but my sense is part of it could be because of how the issue becomes, you know, politicized by anti-Muslim groups.

Elizabeth - 22:53              

To the point of what you wrote in your in your article and what you just said, it does, it's also difficult too because especially because since they're the first to Muslim female women elected to Congress, there's all this pressure to be, it's essentially just what, just what you said, there's a lot of pressure from different areas, but of course it's extremely important that they come out against FGM at a federal level too.

Maryum Saifee - 23:20              

Right, exactly, exactly. And you know, make comments on the fact that they, you know, even just amplifying what they've already done, which is supporting legislation in their own states against FGM. And then saying that the outcome of this case is concerning, just using their public platforms to just reinforce their existing view that FGM is harmful and as Muslims, they can also further point saying that it has nothing to do with the religion, which is what the, the, the defense and the Detroit case is saying, that this is a religious practice that they characterize as harmless.

Elizabeth - 23:55              

So, and with FGM being, not exclusively a Muslim issue, but still as you mentioned, more prevalent in Muslim communities than others, how do you think the discussion about banning FGM can be had with the nuance required to address the issue at large and also within the smaller communities, communities that it directly affects - like how do we approach this with efficacy and nuance that it, that it needs to be effective and ban FGM?

Maryum Saifee - 24:27              

I think each community manifests differently. So having a very, I mean having of course like a broad ranging set of messaging that all forms of excision - because there's different forms of FGM...

Elizabeth - 24:36 - [Voice over interrupts interview]

Elizabeth - 24:36              

I'm going to interrupt here for a second because I mentioned earlier in the introduction to this episode that FGM is not just one thing, and I'm going to read directly from Equality Now's website on this. "Female genital mutilation and cutting, FGM, is a harmful traditional practice that involves the removal of part or all of the female genitalia. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies it into four categories. Type one: Clitoridectomy, partial or total removal of the clitoris and or prepuce. Type two: Excision, partial or total removal of the clitoral hood and the Labia Minora with or without excision of the Labia Majora. Type three: Infibulation, the most extreme form, the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching together of the two sides of the vulva. Type four: All other harmful procedures done to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes including pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, and cauterizing." The website goes on to say, "FGM can have lifelong health consequences including chronic infection, hemorrhage, complications during childbirth, increased risk of newborn deaths, psychological trauma, severe pain during urination, menstruation, and sexual intercourse. And while cases of death as a direct or indirect result of FGM are occasionally reported, there is currently no statistical data on how many girls die from the procedure. FGM is recognized internationally as a human rights violation, constituting torture and an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls. The reasons underlying its practice are numerous and varied, and ultimately serve to control women and girls' sexuality. FGM is a global issue. In 2016, UNICEF reported that over 200 million women and girls are currently living with FGM. 193 countries, including the U.S., agreed in the Sustainable Development Goals to work to eliminate FGM by 2030." Once again, Maryum Saifee.

Maryum Saifee - 26:55              

Are, are, are harmful, and that's backed up by the World Health Organization, which is said, that you know FGM serves absolutely no medical purpose and only has the capacity to cause harm. So, you know, the fact that there's already guidance, that's you know, internationally recognized, peer reviewed, stating that there was no, there's no reason to do this from a health perspective - it's clearly a human rights violation. So I think grounding the issue in human rights, based on human rights norms and values, integrating it into, fother movements like the me too movement and other sexual assault, framing it as child sexual assault I think is critical so that it's seen as, there's really no ambiguity to this. And then in terms of outreach within the various communities that practice, whether it's Muslim, Christian, they're even animus groups and, you know, those I think would have to be customized each community because the drivers differ from place to place. For some, you know, it's not linked to religion. In some cases it is. And so, so figuring out, sort of then having people from within, ideally survivors even, or community members from within those communities, really taking the lead on addressing the issue. And, and that's actually starting to happen already here in the U.S. There's a network that just recently launched is called the U.S. Network to End FGM/C. And so that's, you know, the steering committee has, you know, groups from a variety of different, backgrounds that are sort of figuring out ways to collectively come together and educate the mainstream, you know, the U.S. Government, or international bodies or at the state and local level giving advice as well as customizing programs for within their communities that would look differently across the board.

Elizabeth - 28:47              

To your point that you were just talking about regarding that, some people, cite FGM as having, religious basis, you stayed in your article that FGM, in fact in, as you just said, it has no basis in the Islamic faith. It's not in the Qur'an. And from what I've read elsewhere, it doesn't seem that there is any religious basis for it in any of the communities that it's practiced. And so I was wondering if you can speak at all to where the idea comes from that it is based in religious practice? Like where do, where does that come from? Why do people say that if it's not in the, in the text?

Maryum Saifee - 29:26              

I think it's, you know, in the, for example, in the Muslim tradition, there's some Hadiths which are, you know, traditions of the prophet where you could interpret it in a way that potentially would, would advocate for some excision. And so that the, those again, like the quality of those Hadiths can be a contested, so many mainstream scholars that have looked into or investigated the issue, you have like, fatwas, from you know, from Egyptian, like the Imam Shaker el Sayed and others that had basically said that at FGM has no basis in the religion, so the majority of the mainstream within the Muslim community, Muslim leadership, scholarship across the board had basically delinked any connection between the Faith and even, you know, the Hadiths, these traditions that are often cited, or used as evidence, to, to FGM itself. So I think the reason it's happening, at least within the Muslim faith is that there is some, you know, minority of religious leaders who are misinterpreting. And so, and that happens I think in any tradition. So you can see that, you know, in Christianity or Judaism where there are patriarchal interpretations of the Faith that aren't necessarily the intention of, of the tradition. So, so in, in that regard Islam is no different.

Elizabeth - 30:58              

In your article for medium, you wrote, "The defense lawyers in the Detroit case have argued that FGM is a benign 'symbolic nick.' They allege it as a harmless ritual that should be protected on grounds of religious freedom." Yet as we've been discussing, uthere's nothing benign about being pinned down at the age of seven, and, and your quote, it goes on to say, "...typically by a female relative and sexually assaulted with a sharp object." How do you think people who practice FGM, particularly those who've performed FGM on others, who are most likely are also survivors of FGM? How - I guess I'm trying to understand more how, how they're not seeing it as a, as a deeply psychologically and physically harmful practice as, as the survivors who are speaking out about it clearly do.

Maryum Saifee - 32:04              

I think part of it is just community pressure. And so they feel kind of like they're, it's, it's obligatory, it's mandatory in order for, you know, girls get married, then they must do this. And so there is a sense of a bit of brainwashing I think within the, you know, community where if the leadership is telling you this is required, and you want to be part of this community or this, you know, sort of social form of organizing then, you feel pressured to do it. So I think, you know, if you, and if you speak out against it and like there are many, for example, there was a letter to the, I think in Detroit News where it's somebody from the community talks about how exactly, like it's benign, it's not harmful, this is our religious faith. We should be able to practice. So then a group of us, survivors based in the United States, wrote a response, signing to it. And there were, even though I think there are about 19 or so signatures, but that's not even a reflective of the number that are really, you know, within the community that are against FGM, because they feel like they can't put their names on this list, because it will be completely excommunicated. So there is a tension where, you know, there are people, again, like all faiths, like there's, there's good and there's not so great. And so then some people, you know, they derive a sense of belonging from, from the tradition and don't want to completely leave the community, even if they disagree with this practice. So I think there's, there's, you know, many people, I think there was a survey done by a grassroots group called Sahiyo, and they actually, I think surveyed members of the community anonymously, through sort of online data collection and it was like over 80% of those surveys said that they'd, even if they've undergone on FGM, they wouldn't have it done to their daughters. So again, you know, that shows that there's not really an appetite to do this, it's just they feel pressured and forced to. So my sense is that to answer your question, that there are those that are performing this feel they have to do it. They, I don't think they, I can't imagine them thinking, you know, it's this thing to celebrate, especially because it's done in secret, the girls are typically, like in the Detroit case, are kind of tricked into, into, you know, lured into sort of a trap, right? So they were told you're going on a special girls trip, in my case I was told I would get, you know, a Toblerone or whatever candy afterwards, and you sort of, and you're at such a young age that, you don't question it and you assume it's, you know, it's your, it's a female authority figure. And I think those women, as you've mentioned, are highly likely to have been survivors of FGM themselves, so they don't see it as something that's necessarily unusual or bad. They're just like, oh, this is just the, the thing that you do, you know, when this is a, it's a cultural tradition as a or in their, in their eyes or religious practice that, just kind of happened in a very mundane way. So, so I don't see that, see that they think of it as a human rights violation.

Elizabeth - 35:12              

And you shared with me during our calls that we had prior to scheduling this interview to that part of the, part of what can help change the perception within the community. That it is just an like an expected thing and a, a harmless thing. Part of it that the passage of laws can help change the perception in the community?

Maryum Saifee - 35:37              


Elizabeth - 35:37              

And so I was wondering if you could elaborate a little bit on how the passage of laws banning FGM and can help bring about the perception change needed in the communities that practice FGM to, to help bring about ending the practice?

Maryum Saifee - 35:53              

In criminalizing FGM, just like criminalizing any form of any human rights abuse, right, whether it's, you know, rape, incest, you know, any form of criminal activity, like it serves as a deterrent. So then, and it's also a norm, it creates a norm so that people now know FGM is criminalized, then it's wrong. There's really no debate on that in terms of, I mean they can internally do things that are, that are, um, they can violate the law. But the fact that the laws on the books, I think it gives, I think especially because in this case there are many that, you know, are looking for reasons not to do it. They don't, I don't think there are many community members that are, uh, the feel comfortable with this practice anyway. So having, you know, the federal law, this recent, the overturn of the federal law in Detroit, which will be appealed, and, you know, and so that's not the end of the conversation, but at least at the state level, there should be, if it's criminalized in all 50 states, then there's sort of a resounding message to anyone, any community that thinks that this is permissible or legal, that is in fact not. I think it sets a baseline for norm. And I think that's critically important. And I think it's also a deterrent. If you can be prosecuted and penalized and you know, serve jail time or lose your medical license or all those things, then, then people will think twice and say, is it really worth it. You know, if they feel obligated to do it, but there's a high price to pay then they may also think you know, maybe I won't do this. You know, and I don't think that the laws, prosecutions itself will necessarily eradicate the practice. Because you've seen in other countries where they'd had FGM, anti-FGM legislation for decades and you haven't seen a dramatic shift in behavior. So I think it's not just having laws, but it's also having proper enforcement, which is why the Detroit case is so important because if you know the charges are all dropped and then there's no real consequence, then it'll send a message that, you know, that these laws aren't really like they don't have teeth. So, I think that's why it's really important to make sure that this is a successful prosecution. It's the first federal case in U.S. History.

Elizabeth - 38:05              

Yes. And that's, that's actually, that was going to be my next question. You answered it right there. How the recent verdict in Detroit where the judge ruled that the federal ban is unconstitutional, how, how that has influenced proponents of FGM. Like if they, like you said, if they think the laws have no teeth?

Maryum Saifee - 38:24              

Yeah, it's definitely empowered them. I think they, they see the case as kind of a victory like that - They see it, even though this is an incorrect reading of it, because it was dismissed or if the charge, the federal overturn was basically overturned on a technicality saying that there was this congress never had the authority to pass the legislation in the first place because it didn't pass the commerce law, you know, test. And so it wasn't that the, the judge himself wasn't saying, if this is something that the act itself is something that's lawful, it's that the federal law. And so, you know, at the state level it is criminalized. So I think making sure that all other, I think there's 27 states that have criminalized FGM to date. And so making sure the, you know, the remainder of the states in the United States criminalize FGM is critically important. And I think also by doing so, you're also raising awareness of the issues. So as you know, your lobbying and getting groups to contact their representative, then, then these representatives are also just more informed that, oh, that this is actually not a faraway issue happening in rural villages in Africa, but in fact it's happening, you know, potentially to my constituents, my neighbors. It's an American issue as much as it is a global issue.

Elizabeth - 39:55              

I admit to that. Actually to that point, prior to the ruling in the case, I was very ignorant. I did not know that it was practiced here, I mean, I grew up in Metro Detroit. I believe that the doctor was practicing in Livonia, you know, just a few minutes away. And so I was very ignorant about it, which is, which is why I reached out to, to talk with people who, who knew, who knew more about it. But now, you know, I know, I know. I've been galvanized to try and work in my community about this. And to help support survivors and, you know, listen to them on how best to move forward. So on the flip side of, of how the verdict has maybe emboldened proponents of FGM, how do you think the recent verdict in Detroit has affected the movement of activists fighting to ban FGM?

Maryum Saifee - 40:51              

I mean I think it's helped raise awareness on the issue. You know, it made headlines and so people are now like yourself and those that may or may not have been as informed on the issue, more sort of informed, and then activated to do something about it. So I think that's been a really positive silver lining is that more people, you know, lawyers, doctors, human rights activists, and just citizens, everyday citizens looking to find ways to address the issue in a meaningful way. So I think that's been, and then the audience of people, the group of people rather than it just being this, you know, handful of activists that are, you know, survivors that have become, you know, anti-FGM campaigners. Many of us have our own, you know, professional careers and day jobs. And this is very, very time consuming, side hustle, you know, just sort of get people activated. Now you see more people jumping into this, which I think in the end will really help because then you know, it'll take sort of a broad base intersectional, you know, multisectoral approach to ending this cause it's not just a health issue or a human rights issue or a legal issue or an education issue. It's all of those things, so I think getting people across sectors involved will be really helpful.

Elizabeth - 42:13              

Absolutely. And to your point that you made earlier in the interview, just the, that this is very much within the scope of the things that we talked about when we talk about like the, the me too movement and violence against women in general. It is, it is violence against women and girls. And, and that is, that community, you know, when, when we talk about all of the different, kind of the, the spectrum of what women experience, FGM should be part of that conversation. Absolutely.

Maryum Saifee - 42:49              

Exactly. Yeah. Absolutely. Cause it, the, it also reframes it. It's no longer seen as as this as a far away cultural practice that, because there are some cultural relativists who are well meaning and want to be able to give, you know, communities freedom to practice in ways that they feel make sense to them. But when a tradition is harmful, then that's where I think there's a line that is crossed. And so in this case, framing FGM as a human rights abuse, or a form of gender based violence or child sexual assault really shifts that conversation because then it's harder to justify a cultural practice or religious tradition that is also a form of child sexual assault.

Elizabeth - 43:37              

So what are the next steps? I know we talked a little bit about the fact that this case in Detroit will be appealed. What are the next steps for, for the legal battle to ban FGM?

Maryum Saifee - 43:49              

I think, so the appeal was one area and there are groups like Equality Now that are, you know, putting together, spearheading campaigns around the legal piece, creating amicus briefs and others. The other piece I think that is this also important, if not equally important, is making sure that all states ban FGM, so creating sort of a U.S. intrastate, I guess, or interstate is more, is more accurate a movement so that all, all states, because I think that also will activate other pieces of the state's machinery. So not just ensuring there's a criminal ban, but also making sure that, you know, the local health providers and health, you know, agencies are aware of this issue. And so, I think the, the advocacy movement at the state level, at the state and local level, will also help in sort of ensuring that there's service provision for those that are survivors. Also just education for healthcare providers on what this is because many people are unaware of it or, or unfamiliar, it's not part of, you know, it may or may not be part of sort of routine, like the continuing medical education for, for folks, you know, family practice or OB/GYN's or others. So making sure that there's just more awareness in different ways. And I think the state and local is really critical because the federal government, is also very important, and I think it sends a message that, that strong in the united, that the, the U.S. Government as a whole is against FGM. And that's our, that's the U.S. Government's policy across all, despite the outcome of the Detroit case, that still holds true. So I think having more state and local kind of affirmation of that will only be helpful in helping to really kind of, and I think once the awareness is raised and there's a, you know, people start questioning it within their own communities, then, you know, little by little, you know, there'll be this sort of ripple effect where people then just say, well, I'm going to make sure this hasn't happened to my own daughter. And so it can, it can really end in a generation if there's sort of the, the movement to kind of bring about the change.

Elizabeth - 46:15              

Yes. And so to that point, I know that we have to wrap up soon. I wanted to ask you, what can people listening to this do to help the movement to ban FGM, both in the U.S. and a worldwide? And what can we do to help support survivors of FGM?

Maryum Saifee - 46:35              

It's a great question. So I think supporting groups, there's a whole, there's a network, I think the website will be launched in February. But it's a U.S. Network to end FGM, it's sort of a clearing house now all the different groups in the United States and globally that are working to end FGM. So supporting those groups, you know, calling your representatives, even if there is a ban on FGM, making sure that Congress is pushing for resources towards data collection and and service provision and making sure that this is a top line agenda, because it is something that's kind of that falls through the cracks quite a bit, so I think just both, you know, helping with resources to groups on the ground that are, that are doing the work with survivors and providing services and doing the advocacy work as well as just getting politically engaged and calling your representatives to say that, yeah, this is an issue you care about. So, I mean, to circle back to the representatives, you know, in Michigan and Minnesota, if they're not hearing from their constituents, they may say, oh, this is not a top line issue for, for Michiganders are, you know, for people that I represent. And so I think that's really important. Whether you're a survivor of this practice, or you're not, if you're just a concerned citizen that's against gender based violence or if you're, you know, want to protect the rights of women and girls, I think anyone can be, can be involved in this.

Elizabeth - 48:15              

Well, Maryum, I wanted to thank you so much for talking with me today and for being on the show. I admit when I, when I reached out about trying to, trying to talk to people who were survivors of FGM and who knew about the practice, and who are willing to talk to me that I - I also didn't, as with, as with every form of sexual violence and gender based violence, it's really difficult to talk about. So I just really appreciate your candor and your time today and sharing.

Maryum Saifee - 48:45              

Thank you, and thanks for having me. And thanks for pulling together this podcast too. It's, I'm excited to just see the future episodes as well. It looks like a really interesting way of approaching issues.

Elizabeth - 48:58              

Thank you. I think, I think, part of the other thing I, I don't think we touched on, you touched on it a bit actually, but part of what I've noticed is that there is such a, there's a very strong base of using storytelling as activism, which is, yeah.

Maryum Saifee - 49:17              


Elizabeth - 49:17              

Which is so it, it's, it's brilliant. It's a, it's a brilliant thing to do. And then that's part of, it's, it's been inspiring because that's part of kind of what, what I, what I hope to do too, because I think that's right. I think that's how we connect with people.

Maryum Saifee - 49:32              

Yup. Absolutely. I think the storytelling piece has been, it's a way to personalize it and make it seem like it's less far away. And so once you start to, you know, you're, it opens up the, the human kind of empathetic element to it. And, and just makes it to then the women that are, you know, the 200 million women and girls that are affected by FGM globally and the half a million here in the U.S. there is at risk, like they're no longer data points. They're actually - oh they're people, like there's, you know, my story and there's others, other people as well. So I think it, I think you're absolutely right, the storytelling piece is critical and, in kind of getting people to care and to feel activated around the issue.

Elizabeth - 50:16              

Well, Maryum Saifee, thank you for being on underestimated.

Maryum Saifee - 50:19              

Thanks for having me.

Elizabeth - 50:21              

You have been listening to "Don't Mention It,": a series of stories on health from the spectrum of femininity from a Underestimated: A Podcast. Special thanks today to my guest Maryum Saifee. I am honored that you wanted to be a part of this project, and I will do everything I can to help amplify your work. To that end, anybody who is interested in learning more about the issue of FGM, or how they can participate in being an activist to help end the practice, visit endfgmnetwork.org.

Elizabeth - 50:47              

My guest next week we'll be Mariyah Taher. Mariyah is a survivor of FGM and an activist to end the practice. She is a co-founder of Sahiyo, an organization devoted to amplifying the stories of survivors and working to fight to end FGM globally.

Elizabeth - 51:04              

As always, thank you for listening to Underestimated: A Podcast, which is written, produced, and hosted by me, Elizabeth Palmer. All opinions expressed by me in the show are mine and mine alone and do not represent those of any other entity, employer, or any other person. You can follow the show on Twitter @underestipod, on Instagram @underestimatedpodcast, and you can find transcripts and any original artwork that comes out for the series at underestimatedpodcast.com. If you have a story you would like to share, or any feedback that you want to let me know about, please email the show at uunderestimatedpodcast@gmail.com. All music and audio in this episode is cited in the show notes. Any music or audio that sounds kind of cobbled together and inexpertly edited was done by me in Garageband. Thank you for listening. Have a good week.


Elizabeth P.